What are we to make of MTV's Skins? More to the point, what are we to say about America's version of a British serial that hasn't already been said? How are we to restrain ourselves from overusing exclamation points as we describe its excesses?
That last one may be the hardest since Skins itself is an exclamation point on television programming—an emphatic statement full of noise and heat and bluster, a scream without sense, a yawp without warning. And when we hear such a shout, the temptation is to yell back.
Should we succumb?
The skins of the title serves as a double entendre, referencing both the bare skin on frequent display and the paper used to roll joints. The series centers on high schoolers engaged in a dizzying array of bad behaviors, from sex to drugs to deceit. Tony, the ringleader with a choir-boy face and a bad-boy swagger, torments his father and preys on his classmates like a smirking demon. Goofball friend Stanley obsesses over his porn collection. Chris makes crass come-ons to his appreciative social sciences teacher. Cadie embalms her dead hamster and hangs it from the ceiling. Oh, and she'll sleep with anyone if they'll bring her drugs. By comparison, Tea, a promiscuous, self-possessed lesbian cheerleader, practically qualifies as a role model.
Teens disrobe whenever convenient, smoke pot whenever possible and swear as much as the censors allow. Used occasionally, the f-word is bleeped. The same cannot be said of the s-word, or any of the other frequent profanities, or the crude monikers for various body parts, or the slew of sexual allusions.
But beyond this kind of extreme content (which really wouldn't even raise eyebrows over at Spike or FX these days), what sets Skins apart is its ethos. Plugged In has been critical of such shows as Gossip Girl and Melrose Place for being unnecessarily salacious, but we've observed that all that bad behavior sometimes invokes something more interesting—sometimes even akin to a positive lesson or two. On Skins, bad behavior is the message. Because even though we see hints that, underneath all the sex and drugs and cheap laughs, this is really a tragedy masked, it's buried so deep that by the time its voice surfaces, we can barely hear the whisper.
And that's why, before it even aired, the Parents Television Council declared Skins "the most dangerous program that has ever been foisted on your children!"
MTV seems to agree.
"Back in 2008, The CW network rolled out a controversial 'OMFG' ad campaign for its series, Gossip Girl," writes Lisa Chudnofsky on the network's Remote Control Blog. "Parents and religious groups were up in arms over its scandalous posters, which featured half-nekkid Upper East Siders, mid-hookup, and looking pretty excited about it. The images were raunchy, but we can't exactly judge—if MTV were to put up a billboard that encapsulates its provocative new series, Skins, it might … say something like 'OMFG. No Really, OMFFFFFG!'"
Or, put more succinctly by Hank Stuever in The Washington Post, "By and large, Skins is a repugnant, irredeemably nihilistic viewing experience for grownups—the very thing for which 'off' buttons are made."
Perhaps, though, it's the "Defamer" on gawker.com who best captured what I found especially bothersome about the show by nailing down the idea that Skins defames the very people it's supposed to attract: "[It] present[s] the thesis that kids really are as adults supposedly see them—messy jumbles of extremes with very little shading in between, lacking in kindness, decorum, and any sense of responsibility or consequence. It's a pretty bleak and unfair characterization. Teenagers are dumb, yes, but they're not monsters. … I wish television and movies would stop trying to tell us they are."
Of course, if you know anything about the public life of teenagers, you know that even these teens aren't monsters. They're just kids who desperately need help. But on Skins, there's no help coming. And that makes this series the most depressing teen fantasy we've ever laid eyes on. It depicts adults as moronic and ineffectual, even though polls suggest that teens actually see the adults in their lives as positive influences and "family" as paramount. And while the kids on Skins live for the next party, today's youth are working harder than ever at school and plotting out their college course load and future careers. Studies suggest that for real teens sexual promiscuity and overall drug use may have actually gone down over the last decade, while responsibility and charity have gone up.
Not that Skins will ever breathe a word of that. This show stubbornly stays true to its ringleader, Tony, manipulating its viewers and leading them into a world both repulsive and unreal.
Chris uses money left by his mother—along with a note reading, "Be gone a few days. Be good!"—to throw a boozy, druggy party. The next morning, he realizes that revelers trashed his house, stole his toilet … and that his mom might be gone for good. His room is covered with empty drug packaging and drug paraphernalia. And he hocks a wheelbarrow to buy more. We see him in a state of impairment.
A result of erectile drugs, Chris' erection (obvious through his clothes) is seen throughout the episode. In this condition, he urinates on himself, eventually scrambling into the tub to relieve himself. He invites his social sciences teacher to his house under false pretenses—and she almost decides to stay. Ultimately, Chris walks through the streets naked (his bare backside exposed to the camera).
Tony and Michelle disrobe and hop into bed. (We see her bare back.) She asks Stanley what he thinks of her breasts. Chris' erection and others like it are at the center of rather graphic conversations. Urine is listed as an ingredient used to treat acne. Characters say the s-word about a half-dozen times, along with "h‑‑‑," "p‑‑‑ed" and misuses of God's name.
Stanley finds out the dealer from whom he bought (but didn't pay for) pot is out to get him. But that's just about the least of viewers' worries. Tea spends a sex-filled night with another girl … then hooks up with Tony just to see what guys are like, too. Both scenes are intensely explicit, with sexual sounds and movements representing intercourse and oral sex. Nudity stops just short of breast and backside. Tea also masturbates under her bedcovers, again with explicit motion and moaning.
After the lesbian encounter, vulgar allusions populate much of the dialogue which is devoted to exactly what took place between the two girls. After (and during) the heterosexual hookup, Tea guffaws over how "terrible" and "stupid" it feels to be with a boy. That kind of twisted logic doesn't keep her from quickly dumping her female "friend," though, complaining that nobody's interesting enough to spend any more time with than is required for sex.
Later, Tea's grandmother comes out to her. And despite the fact that Tea's mob-connected dad does his best to protect her and stick up for her, adults are again dismissively abused at every turn. Profanity includes uncensored s-words.
Tony states that it's "embarrassing" that his 16-year-old friend, Stanley, hasn't had sex. (Stanley's been substituting porn and masturbation.) So Tony spends the bulk of the episode trying to help Stanley lose his virginity. His target: Cadie, a girl with a knife fetish, a drug problem and suicidal tendencies. Cadie says she'll cooperate if she's given drugs. Before the sordid adventure peters out in a huge soggy mess, marijuana has been procured, pills have been popped, Cadie has been rendered unconscious, an SUV has been stolen … and submerged in a reservoir.
We see women (mostly) topless and wearing only underwear. Tony and Michelle kiss passionately and run their hands over each others' bodies. There are numerous references to lesbianism. Chris shamelessly flirts with a teacher. Pretty much everyone makes nasty and sometimes explicit sexual remarks.
Adults are regularly mocked. Tony helps his younger sister sneak into the house after she's been out all night. Kids smoke pot in the school bathroom. Cadie squats in the bushes to urinate. There are explicit references to defecation. A drug dealer/pimp threatens Stanley by squeezing his testicles. Students get into a fight at a party. Profanity includes bleeped f-words, uncensored s-words, "b‑‑ch," "d‑‑n," "a‑‑" and misuses of God's name.